Hydraulic fracturing, which taps resources like natural gas deep below the ground, is one of the most divisive issues in New York State. A recent Siena College poll found 42 percent of state residents were opposed to it, and 41 percent were in favor of it. The state for years has delayed making a final decision, and in the meantime, the practice is not allowed. Karen B. Moreau is active in the debate, advocating for what is commonly called “fracking.” Moreau, a 52-year-old Albany County resident, is executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, a division of the American Petroleum Institute. While opponents of “fracking” warn the practice would cause environmental damage, Moreau challenges that argument, and contends the state is missing out on much-needed economic benefits:
Q: The state is evenly split on this issue. How do you believe your side can win this argument?
A: I think the argument is gradually turning as more and more information comes out. And much of it’s coming from the national level. We’re seeing on the issue of environmental safety, reports coming from the Department of Energy, the EPA, on studies they’ve done on emissions, for example, that are favorable. … They’ve been studying this, and we have 29 states in this country developing their shale resources using high-volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technology.
They’re doing it safely. They’re all regulated by their state agencies. Certainly with any kind of industrial development, energy development of any kind, whether it’s solar, wind gas, oil, you will have some cases where there is an issue. And those cases primarily have been ones where there was poor well construction, and there was a spill. But it was contained. And if there was any that entered a private water well in a rural area, ultimately that was rectified.
But I think the public has had a perception, and that perception’s been created by films like ‘Gasland’ and certainly the anti-fracking movement across the country. They present an image that somehow you can have widespread contamination of water supplies, which is just completely false. This is what gets people nervous.
Q: What about the potential long-term effects of hydraulic fracturing? How can you assure people it won’t be harmful in the long run?
A: I think one of the things that’s a real misconception is that this is something new. We’ve been using hydraulic fracturing in this country since 1949. And we’ve had horizontal drilling for decades. In New York State right now, there are over 13,000 active oil and gas wells, primarily in the western part of the state, many of which are drilled right through aquifers. The only difference is, and this is what’s under moratorium, is that we’re having deeper wells. And when you have a deeper well, you require more water to do the fracturing. … These wells are generally a mile vertically and another mile horizontally. One well bore can be 12,000 feet in length. … The fracturing part of this process is only three to five days on a well site.
Q: What about technology used in fracking? Can you point to safety improvements?
A: In order for energy companies to be successful, they have to do a really good job, and safety is paramount. Safety for their workers, first, and safety for the environment. Because let’s face it, if you don’t do this well, the public will not accept this, and overall they have a very good track record, which continues to improve with new technologies. … Marcellus Shale (natural gas) production in Pennsylvania has exceeded the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s stunning, the numbers. It’s far exceeding what the government and the geologists had predicted what the Marcellus was going to yield. And newer technologies that allow you to drill fewer wells, but allow you to make a longer bore under the ground, have led to less wells being drilled, which means less impact on a community, and more gas being produced. … These wells pay property taxes based on their production. So it’s the energy company paying the town, the school, the county where the well is located … One of the sorry points about this delay is that, with pushing this back further, these benefits don’t kick in for several years. So the longer you delay it, the longer these communities will have to wait to see these benefits.
Q: If New York State allowed fracking, how would Western New York benefit, even without drilling here?
A: One of the significant parts of this kind of development is that it requires a lot of steel tubing for the drilling operations, and the production of gas leads to lower energy costs for manufacturing. So what we’re seeing in this country in other places is a return of manufacturing from abroad, coming back to the United States, because of a stable supply of low-cost natural gas, which is being used certainly for the consumer benefit in the electric generation area, but for the manufacturing side as a source of fuel.
Q: How do you see this statewide debate turning out?
A: Sadly, it just seems to have become more of a political decision more than anything else at this point. I think that the studies have been completed. … I think it’s very much tied in with the governor’s re-election campaign. My sense is that he just does not want to deal with it while he’s crossing the state, running for office. And because the polling is pretty evenly split and he seems to be a governor that is very sensitive to polling, I think he’s taken the position of not doing anything. … The thing that concerns and troubles me the most is, we have our political leaders talking so much these days about rebuilding the middle class. … One of the things this kind of development does do is, it produces high-paying jobs for people that work with their hands. And I think those people have been the foundation in our history, especially in towns that were based on industry.